Dante’s Divine Comedy has always enjoyed favor in the plastic arts. Ugolino, the character that galvanized peoples’ fantasies and fears during the second half of the nineteenth century, appears in Canto 33 of the Inferno. This intensely Romantic sculpture derives from the passage in which Dante describes the imprisonment in 1288 and subsequent death by starvation of the Pisan count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his offspring. Carpeaux depicts the moment when Ugolino, condemned to die of starvation, yields to the temptation to devour his children and grandchildren, who cry out to him:
But when to our somber cell was thrown
A slender ray, and each face was lit
I saw in each the aspect of my own,
For very grief both of my hands I bit,
And suddenly from the floor arising they,
Thinking my hunger was the cause of it,
Exclaimed: Father eat thou of us, and stay
Our suffering: thou didst our being dress
In this sad flesh; now strip it all away.
Carpeaux’s visionary composition reflects his reverence for Michelangelo, as well as his own painstaking concern with anatomical realism. Ugolino and His Sons was completed in plaster in 1861, the last year of his residence at the French Academy in Rome. A sensation in Rome, it brought Carpeaux many commissions. Upon his return to France, Ugolino was cast in bronze at the order of the French Ministry of Fine Arts and exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1863. Later it was moved to the gardens of the Tuilieries, where it was displayed as a pendant to a bronze of the Laocoön. This marble version was executed by the practitioner Bernard under Carpeaux’s supervision and completed in time for the Universal Exposition at Paris in 1867. The date inscribed on the marble refers to the original plaster model’s completion.
Ugolino and His Sons, modeled ca. 1860–61, executed in marble 1865–67
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875)